Graphic Lit: An interview with Jules Feiffer
Jules Feiffer lives a blessed life.
His children’s novel, “The Man in the Ceiling,” is being produced on Broadway by Disney. His memoirs will be published next year. And when I spoke with him recently, he was preparing to see his daughter perform alongside Kevin Kline — in a play he wrote.
Not to mention the other beloved and award-winning plays (“Little Murders”), screenplays (“Carnal Knowledge”) and children’s books (“Bark, George”) he’s written in the past 50 years.
It started with the comic strip. Specifically, the “Village Voice” comic strip.
Originally titled “Sick, Sick, Sick” at its 1956 debut (and later renamed “Feiffer” before its current name), the strip’s sardonic take on Cold War America’s politics and social mores quickly made a name for itself. As a comic strip, it was a pioneer in exploring adult anxieties and foibles.
Now those seminal cartoons are being collected in four extensive volumes, the first of which — “Explainers” — went on sale a few weeks ago.
I talked to Feiffer about the collection and the strip’s legacy. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: What’s it like to revisit this material after all this time?
A: It’s kind of amazing to see how much of it holds up and how interesting it remains to me as the author of it, instead of making me wince and wish it away. I kind of enjoy looking at it. I see it primarily at this late date as a body of work, but it’s a body of work that increasingly builds and develops and makes sense, so I’m quite happy about it.
Q: Are there any strips in particular that stand out for you?
A: Oh, I’m sure there are, but I can’t —
Q: Is there anything that surprised you?
A: Yes, but again I can’t be specific. But here and there I’d say “Jesus Christ, I used to be good.”
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you got in the Village Voice?
A: It’s in the introduction, but I’ll tell you about it. I had been for three years or so been trying to sell my work in book form to editors at publishing houses like Simon and Schuster. All of them expressed great interest in the work and no interest in publishing it.
Their excuse was, as they gave it over and over again, that they didn’t know how to market it. Since I was an unknown, they couldn’t take a chance on publishing it. If I were known, if my name were Steinberg or Steig or Thurber, they would grab it.
My problem was that I wasn’t Steinberg or Steig or Thurber and I had to figure out how I could be. It was clear that once I could get in publications they would recognize, they’d recognize me. I saw on all their desks copies of the Village Voice, so I figured if I could be in that paper, then they might confuse me with Steinberg, Steig or Thurber and publish me. And that’s exactly what happened.
Q: What was the initial reaction when the strip debuted? Did you get any reader feedback?
A: Yes. I thought it would take six months to a year, it took a matter of weeks. It happened incredibly fast. People would stop me on the street and say “How did you get that into print?” They didn’t talk about how funny or satiric or interesting it was. They just were amazed that something that represented their sensibility could be in a newspaper because what they were used to is being aced out of the cultural and political conversation.
We’re talking about the end years of McCarthyism and Eisenhower. A young, college-educated generation in their twenties and thirties, didn’t exist as far as the media was concerned, including in the pages of the New Yorker.
Q: Initially did you have any problems with editorial interference?
A: With the Voice, there was never a problem with editorial interference. When I agreed to syndication three years later, there’s always a problem with that, but there very little of that, because when the newspapers took me in the first place, kind of knew what they were getting into and the ones who didn’t, I confused them with so much dialogue they couldn’t figure out what it was about anyway.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you developed your style for the strip? Because it’s very different from the work you were doing initially with Eisner on the Spirit or the Clifford strips you did.
A: It was clear to me that it could not be a conventional drawing style, conventional cartoon style, particularly as in Clifford. I was trying for a form that was far more adult, far more sophisticated vein, so I had to look to others. I started trying to be Steig and I stole from Andre Francois who was a wonderful Austrian/French cartoonist at the time.
I just floundered around, mainly trying to find a line that would be expressive in a newspaper, that would simulate what I could do in pencil but never could manage to do in ink, that would seem fresh and free and innovative. And primarily expressive. I wanted a drawing style that would play with the text and move reader along from panel to panel without drawing attention to itself too much. Because mainly what I wanted them to pay attention to was the story I was telling.
Q: It’s very theatrical. You do away with panel borders and backgrounds. Many of them resemble monologues.
A: Well, if you see the early ones, there are panels and balloons. I went back and forth. It took a while for me to figure out. I’d do a cartoon, it would seem fun, and then I’d see it in the newspaper and wince. In the early weeks and months you see the drawing style would change from week to week. I’d go back and forth. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was determined to try everything until I found my way into what it should be, and that took a period of months.
Q: Was there an “ah-ha” moment where you went “Yes, this is how it is supposed to be?”
A: I think it might have been a little “a-ha” moment, more out of exhaustion than eureka. I was quite frustrated and angry at myself for not being able to do what seemed to me intellectually should have been obvious. It seemed to me that I was a very poor student of myself. That I was not learning fast enough. The writing seemed to be way ahead of the art. It took a while for it to catch up.
Q: As the strip started out it was more of a social satire, with you looking at the social mores of the time. It started to get more overtly political as time went on. What prompted that?
A: When I was starting out, there was no such thing as a credibility gap. People trusted their leaders. Although government has always lied, it wasn’t taken as it is today, as a given. People even on the left were not cynical. There was always a sense of hope. There was always a sense that there were a few bad apples, but it was Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam and Nixon following with Watergate that started this sense of government being bad and you can’t trust your leaders and liberals in particular just tuning out and turning off.
But none of this was in play at that time. Essentially what I was trying to do in the strip was introduce my readers to what government was doing with language, how it said one thing but meant another, and, of particular interest to me, was how the Nuclear Regulating Agency — it was originally called the Atomic Energy Commission and then it was called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — would deny during underground tests that there was any fallout while sheep were falling over in fields. And John Wayne was getting cancer for being out on location where this was going on.
Government was simply lying, and you didn’t read about that in the New York Times. You read it in I.F. Stone’s weekly and maybe in the Reporter magazine, but if you weren’t on the left, you didn’t know this. I was trying to introduce this to a general readership.
Q: Especially in the early strips, it seems like you’re playing a lot with types. You have the nebbish, tightly -wound, anxiety-ridden male —
A: Who became my character Bernard.
Q: And then you have the overconfident boor — and sometimes the two are actually the same person. What led to exploring those types of people?
A: These were the people I saw around me and these were the conversations typical of what I heard. Obviously simplified for six or eight panels, but I was really reflecting what I saw and heard around me and it became clear as I got into this after several months, it excited people because they were not used to seeing themselves represented in any form in a newspaper or magazine and to see it in a comic strip really threw them off balance. It excited them and that’s what essentially made me popular.
They simply weren’t represented. When I came along, it was basically an underground operation. I was doing it in the voice and Mort Sahl was doing it in San Francisco at the Hungry Eye and then Nichols and May came along and started doing it in clubs, beginning in Chicago, but it began in cabarets and my strip in the Voice. It evolved into black humor in novels and Bruce Jay Friedman and Philip Roth and others. Something was in the air and I just happened to be on the scene at the right time.
Q: How conscious were you of the scene at the time? Did you see yourself reflecting the cold war society at the time or was it just these were peoples I wanted to talk about?
A: It was a little of both. there was a consciousness that the way I felt, thought and reacted, not just politically but culturally, was simply not given voice to out there. It wasn’t reflected. So by giving voice to myself I was giving voice to an entire segment of a population simply had been denied. There was nothing unique about my own sensibility.
Q: Did you see yourself as part of that group?
A: Oh yes. When I started finding these people after I had begun my work, I felt very excited because up until then I felt in isolation. I then discovered there was Second City in Chicago, which I didn’t know anything about until I went there, and discovered it. They were doing what I was doing except they were doing it theatrically. My work became increasingly theatrical as I saw people like Mike and Elaine and second city.
Q: You haven’t done a strip like this for a long time. Do you miss being more political now?
A: No, because as the years went by, I gave up the idea that I could be an instrument of change and that was always an important part of what I did. Although I’d always been accused of cynicism, I never thought of myself as cynical. I was always full of hope and I always thought of these cartoons as cautionary lessons. By the time Gore and Bush were running against each other I had become cynical. I no longer have the hope I once had. I no longer believe in change as I once did. I’m having a second wave now with the Obama campaign, but at the time, I thought there was no point to me doing politics anymore because it wasn’t affecting anything. I was just getting my rocks off. I had better things to do.
Q: But you missed out on one of the most tumultuous periods in American history.
A: Oh, all of Iraq and Sept. 11. All I could do was express the rage and frustration that other people and other cartoonists like Tom Toles and Oliphant and some others were doing just brilliantly. I saw no point in echoing others who felt just as I did and doing quite a good job of it. I had by that time gotten involved in writing for children and thought that was the country’s and my future. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I wanted to say. Recently I had my first cartoon in the Voice in 11 years because they approached me, on Hillary Clinton and her campaign. That was a lot of pleasure. We’ve been talking about me doing a few others to the run-up of the convention. We’ll see how that works out.
Q: You’ve done comic strips, comic books, written novels and screenplays, children’s books and plays. What’s the one thread that connects all of these different works?
A: I think they’re all connected. It’s my own sensibility and also I think as I’ve analyzed it and tried to figure out what I feel comfortable with and what I don’t, these are forms that I loved by the time I was 12 years old, I could figure out a way of doing them, with the single exception of the adult novel, which requires a knowledge and power of description that is beyond me and always will be. But on the other hand I’ve written a memoir in the first person that is quite literary enough and because it’s my story I don’t have to describe a goddamn thing I don’t want to. And the writing is fine.
I love theater and I love movies and comics and old-time radio, which doesn’t exist anymore or I’d be writing for that. The forms I loved by the time I was 12 in most case could do except for the novel.
Q: But what sort of themes —
A: The themes always, or generally, have something to do with the individual dealing with authority in one form or another. How both authority and the individual would use language not to communicate directly but as a way of avoiding or defusing communication.
Q: It seems like there’s a real interest in power and how people try to wield power over each other, not just in the political strips, but in the gender war cartoons. There’s a fascination with how people attempt to wield power over themselves or other people.
A: And where it leads. The perfect example is Carnal Knowledge, where the narcissism and essential misogyny, particularly in the character played by Jack Nicholson, ends up in a kind of self-loathing, masturbatory isolation. But he’s got control.
Q: Fantagraphics is going to be doing four books of these?
A: So they claim.
Q: They’ve done a really impressive job of keeping your work in print.
A: With me and with others. And their production and stylization has gotten better and better over the years. They're really great. The Popeye series is terrific. The Krazy Kat series is beautiful. And they did a terrific collection of Ed Sorel’s work recently.
Q: I would imagine it’s incredibly flattering to have a publisher so devoted to you, but I wonder if it’s intimidating at the same time.
A: I suppose the reason it’s not intimidating and not in my consciousness is because I’m working as much today and probably harder than ever doing my current work. I’m working on my memoir, I’m also doing my first musical comedy. I’ve never done that before. It all comes together. It’s based on my first children’s novel, the Man in the Ceiling, which is about a boy cartoonist.
So what’s coming full circle is my first musical is about my first form, cartooning as a boy. It’s being produced by Walt Disney on Broadway. It’s this lovely future connecting to the past and the best part of my past.
Q: Sometimes I talk to cartoonists and if they’ve had a really big hit they can be really intimidated and feel like they’re constantly reminded of their past work when they’re working on their next book.
A: I’ve had similar conversations with Art Spiegelman and others. Somehow or other, that has never troubled me or made me have any kind of second thoughts about what I was going to do next. From the beginning, because I wasn’t successful with the strip until I was 28 or so — rather late for a lot of people — rather than being intimidated by success, I knew what it was for, which was to give me what I had never had before in my first 27 years, freedom. Freedom to do the work I wanted. If it wasn’t going to give me freedom; if it was going to give me success and fame and make me cautious, then what was the point in having it? Where would the fun be?
I was determined to have fun with this career and I was determined to play and have a good time. I was determined to go in whatever direction the work took me and not worry about acceptance or rejection. Mostly I’ve been able to do that. Financially from time to time, I’ve had to make deals just to feed my family, write screenplays I didn’t want to and fortunately they were never produced and I got the money anyway.
Q: Looking over your career, you’ve managed to stay really relevant as the years have gone on, unlike a number of your peers. What’s your secret?
A: The secret is I didn’t know there was a secret. There’s always a sense, however established I’ve been -- and I have no illusion about that, that I’m starting out -- that as I get older I feel more stupid, that as I feel more stupid I feel free to play and free to experiment and free to learn. When I feel I don’t know something, rather than that daunting me, it excites me to try to figure the whole thing out. When I come up against a problem I can’t solve, rather than it depressing me, I know that my job is if I can’t solve it is to figure a way around it so that everyone thinks I solved it when I know I didn’t. Because so much of what I do and what anybody in this business does is sleight of hand. Look this way and I’ll do something over here and you won’t even know I’ve done it. And that’s the fun. How you can pull the wool over their eyes and be honest at the same time. And honesty is a big part of what I try to do. I teach a class at Stony Brook South Hampton in Long Island called Humor and Truth. And that’s what it’s all about.
Q: I think that’s certainly one of the big appeals of your children’s books. They have a real emotional honesty to them.
A: Remember that passage from Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield reads a book and he wants to call the author up on the phone? Maybe he does, I forget. Because it’s the one person he can identify with. He holds onto this book. It’s the one version of life that relates to him. And of course, early Salinger was just that way for so many of his readers and that’s the role I envision myself playing with younger readers when I started my children’s books.
Q: What’s the difference between writing for children and writing for adults?
A: You ask where the freshness and relevance come from. It comes from assigning myself to have a good time at whatever I do. Not a pleasure. Some people have a bullshit detector. I have a "hate work" detector. If I’m not having a good time, I don’t want to do it. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard work. Sometimes while I’m having a good time I’m having a terrible time but the work essentially has to be done and I’m determined to do it because underneath it all it’s this great commitment because I’m in love with what I’m doing. I think being in love with it after all these years, and there are a number of older cartoonists, I was talking to Al Jaffee about this, feel the same way. Irwin Hasen, who is just about to turn 90. I love Irwin and he’s a spirit. That’s what I love about cartoonists. Arnold Roth. Cartoonists are in so many ways not grown-ups, except for the New Yorker ones, who are more grown ups.
I don’t make a distinction. Clearly there is one. It’s no more a distinction than writing plays, comic strips and screenplays. Something clicks in my head when I move from one form to another and I make the adjustment. Just as in writing a play, I’m making adjustments in characters’ voices as I move from one character to another. I just take on another identity. I do it as completely as I can to make it work for that character while telling the story I have to tell. And the same thing is true in working in any other form. Obviously there’s language I can’t use and nuanced relationships, but for that matter damaging in more serious ways that you can’t use in a kids book. But I know that. I also know how to get back to who I was and what I was at six and eight and ten and twelve. When you see my memoir which I hope will be out at the end of next year, you can see how completely I’m able to capture my own sensibility when I was [a child]. That was not a reach at all.
Q: You mostly work alone but you collaborate a lot as well. Do you have a preference? Do like them both equally?
A: Theater has been more fun because it is a collaborative form and also because you see something you put on paper live on stage and I never get over the excitement. And also it is in the mouths of actors. Monday of next week we’re having a reading of a play of mine I did in the 70s called Knock, Knock, which is a fractured fairy tale. My 23 year old daughter Halley, who is an actress, is going to have the female lead. She plays a fairy tale Joan of Arc against the male lead who’s going to be Kevin Kline and Peter Friedman. To see these wonderful actors doing my work and to see my daughter in a work that was written and performed before she was born, and which she does better than anyone who’s ever done it, because she’s performed it at Martha’s Vineyard a few years ago. There’s nothing as satisfying as that.
I love hanging around with actors and talking to them about the part and seeing what they add to what I’ve written, which, if they’re good actors, is always infinitely better than what I had in mind. What Jack Nicholson brought to his character in Carnal Knowledge, I didn’t dream anybody could do. It was beyond my highest hopes and expectations. My job can inspire other people to do a job that is remarkable. That’s what I find so exciting. I find it exciting and thrilling when I do my job as well as I can, but there’s an added zest to it doing the unknown where other people can take it and go further than you could.
Q: What about the downside?
A: The downside is if you don’t get people whose egos are involved. Instead of perfecting the work they’re interested in how they look. Or, if their performance isn’t going well, in saving themselves which means they make the wrong choices. But that’s the difference between getting first-rate people and second-rate and I’ve been luckier than most in getting first-rate. Working people like Mike Nichols and Alan Arkin, I can just sit back and let them take over and have a very good time. Very stimulating conversations about where things should go. When you’re in good hands, good things happen. If you’re not in good hands, then you’re dead.
Q: Can you tell?
A: You can tell from the second week on. It takes about two weeks. I’ve had some disasters with some really bad people, but I picked them.
Q: Comics are undergoing a real renaissance right now where people seem to be noticing that they’re a legitimate art form. Do you look around at any of it and see your handiwork? You were a pioneer in many ways.
A: It’s interesting. I was a pioneer who doesn’t seem to have many imitators. There’s no question that I introduced a level of seriousness, of maturity to the form that nobody had done before except for Gary Trudeau, but it didn’t invite a number of pseudo-Feiffers, the way that say Walt Kelly’s Pogo or Calvin and Hobbes or Peanuts led to so many imitators. I haven’t had that many imitators. What I seem to do, which is quite enough for me, thank you, is give license to a whole group of young people to do work they might not have considered doing if I hadn’t been there in the first place. That’s a great feeling. The forms they work in and ways they go about it are not the way I ever would have done it, but that doesn’t matter.
Q: What do you mean by that? The graphic novel medium?
A: The graphic novel medium, the confessional treatment which works better with some people than it does with others. I think Blankets by Craig Thompson is an extraordinary piece of work. Other confessional books are just irritating because they’re too full of self-pity and narcissism. It just depends upon the artist getting away with it. Chris Ware is something of a genius and does the kind of work Raymond Carver would have written. Of course Art Speigelman when he’s doing what he should be doing, which is writing and drawing, instead of doing covers for the New Yorker.
Q: Does it surprise you that comics have finally attained this legitimacy?
A: Yes, it does surprise me. Over the years I was cynical enough to think that here and there there might be something elevated like Spiegelman’s Maus and then we’d go back to the condescension. But Art is really responsible for a breakthrough. And I think it happened both ways. First he gathered more serious critical attention, but also he gave as I did some 30 or 40 years earlier young cartoonists the ambitious push to try something a little bit different and a little harder.
Q: I think when Maus first came out people expected immediately there’d be this overflow and they didn’t realize it would take a generation or so before there’d be constant stuff coming out.
A: And the stuff being done in Europe is remarkable too. Even more sophisticated than we find here. Some of the stuff Drawn and Quarterly does is lovely stuff. A pleasure to look at.
Q: You mentioned the musical you’re working on, you talked about the possibility of returning to the Voice, what else, because that’s clearly not enough, are you working on these days?
A: Well, I finished my memoir and I’m in the editing process now. There’s the musical, and my daughter Kate wrote a book that I illustrated called Henry the Dog With No Tail. Which you should look up for your kids. Simon and Schuster put it out. We have a new book which I’ve been working on. It’s about something that happened to us when she was a little girl up on Martha’s Vineyard, called My Side of the Car. It looks like we’ll sell that and if we do I’ll illustrate it.
My wife Jenny wrote an adult book which I illustrated a few years ago, The Long Chalkboard, and she’s working on another story now. She’s about to have her first essay in the New Yorker too. In any case, if she gets this done and it works as a book I’ll do it. And I want to get back to my picture books for young kids. I haven’t done one in a long time. I haven’t done a picture book in about five years now and it’s irritating.
With this musical, I’ve fallen in love with the form and I hope to do more with the same collaborators.